Why Is Virgin Atlantic Based At Gatwick, While BA Is At Heathrow?

When you think of UK international full service carriers, the first two names that spring to mind are undoubtedly British Airways and Virgin Atlantic. From London, the lion’s share of BA flights go out from Heathrow, while Virgin’s go out from Gatwick. Although there is some cross pollination between the two airports, the separate bases are firmly established and have been for many years. Why?

British Airways Virgin Atlantic
Why are the two airlines based at different airports? Photo: Simple Flying

Why are the two airlines based in different locations?

Although there is some debate over whether Heathrow or Gatwick is the better airport, the general consensus is that Heathrow wins. It’s marginally closer to London, connections are much easier and the airport is seen as having better facilities and services than Gatwick.

British Airways has always had a home at Heathrow. Its head office is in Harmondsworth, a village very close to the airport, and way back when its previous head office, Speedbird House, was actually located within the grounds of Heathrow. British Airways has a strong presence at Gatwick, but really is the dominant airline at Heathrow, with around 40% of the available slots.

British Airways Heathrow
BA has a huge presence at Heathrow. Photo: Tony Higsett via Wikimedia

Virgin Atlantic began operating from Gatwick, and despite securing a handful of slots at Heathrow, continues to be sidelined from the premium airport thanks to British Airways’ monopoly there. Virgin’s head office is in Crawley, a stone’s throw from Gatwick. However, the airline makes no secret of the fact it would prefer to operate more often from Heathrow, if only there were slots available.

Virgin gatwick check in area
Virgin has made a home at Gatwick, but would like more presence at Heathrow too. Photo: Virgin

Virgin’s history with Heathrow and British Airways

Virgin’s first flight was from Gatwick, and went to Newark Liberty International Airport on the 22nd June 1984. All of its next scheduled routes also operated from Gatwick, including services to Boston, Orlando, Tokyo and Los Angeles. It was the first challenger to the British Airways monopoly on long haul routes to America since BA merged with British Caledonian in the 1980s.

It wasn’t until 1991 that Virgin Atlantic secured permission from BAA to operate from Heathrow. The airline also snagged some unused BA slots at Tokyo Narita courtesy of the CAA, a decision which the then chairman Lord King called a “confiscation of his company’s property”.

Virgin A350 flying
Virgin’s new A350 operates from Heathrow. Photo: Virgin

So began the long running feud between BA and Virgin. While Virgin’s Richard Branson campaigned loudly for more slots at Heathrow and a fairer competition between the two airlines, behind the scenes, BA began a campaign of their own. The so-called “dirty tricks” campaign looked to defame Virgin, ridiculing Branson and their operations in general.

This culminated in a court case which saw BA paying out almost £3.5m in legal costs, damages and fines, the proceeds of which Branson reportedly shared with his staff. Since then, there’s been no love lost between the two airlines, with Virgin even going so far as to paint its planes with “No Way BA/AA” in protest of the partnership between the two giant airlines.

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Virgin’s ‘No Way BA AA’ livery. Photo: Kambui via Wikimedia

Regardless of tensions between the two carriers, the decision for Virgin to be based at Gatwick is not one that the airline has actively made. The monopoly over slots at Heathrow has been a long running bugbear of Virgin, and something that the airline has campaigned about for many years.

Will Virgin ever get more slots at Heathrow?

The airline certainly hopes so. The planned expansion of the airport to add a new runway could potentially free up 350 new slots. Virgin is keenly eyeing these and has publicly said that it wants 43% of these slots, taking its presence at Heathrow from the current 30 up to 160 slots.

Should the airline be successful in securing these slots, it would undoubtedly be better for passengers. Research by WPI Economics, shared by AIN Online showed that the parent company of British Airways, IAG, had a monopoly of 77 routes and 55% of the slots at Heathrow over the summer of 2019. One in four passengers, a total of 18.5 million people, had no choice but to fly on an IAG operated service.

BAs terminal at Heathrow
BA and the IAG group had 55% of the slots at Heathrow this summer. Photo: eGuide Travel via Wikimedia

The report goes on to say that the number of routes on which IAG has zero competition from Heathrow has expanded from 18% in 2005 up to 39% this year. As a result, passengers could be paying around 10% more to fly from Heathrow simply due to the lack of competition. Funnily enough, IAG is strongly in opposition to the new runway… no guesses why then.

It’s a little way off yet, with the runway not slated to complete until 2026. That’s if it gets built at all. Even so, if it does and if Virgin Atlantic are successful in their bid for a large number of the slots, passengers could find traveling from London’s premier airport getting a lot more affordable.